The Church finding herself in the midst of a free marketplace of ideas. Given the range of options available to people, it isn’t surprising that, like other Christian communities, the Orthodox Church has in recent years suffered significant, numerical losses. Thinking about why the Orthodox Church has lost so many of our faithful (both those baptized in infancy and those who joined the Church as adults), I am reminded of a conversation I’ve had several times with different priests and parish councils that were trying to establish a professional stewardship program. The conversation would begin with the kind of thought experiment economists love.
Let’s imagine, I’d begin, someone who has $50 and two free hours on Sunday morning. Why would that person want to spend those two hours at Liturgy in your parish and put his money in the basket rather than use his resources to go to brunch with his wife?
Pretty consistently, my question was met with incomprehension (and occasionally irritation). Probing a bit, it became clear that I was asking the community to do something they had never done before. I was asking them to think why—given all the options available to people—someone would want to participate, and financial support, their parish. Why was their parish the most desirable option for how someone could spend his time and money on Sunday morning?
At best, parish leaders would offer generic reasons for others (and by implication, themselves) to attend and support their community. Again, with just a bit of probing, it became clear that, at best, what people had were reasons why religion in general, was a good thing. What they didn’t have were reasons why people would want to invest in their particular community.
While anecdotal, these conversations illustrate what we see in the data about the self-understanding of American Orthodox Christianity. As we see in other Christian communities, Orthodox Christians seem to be taking guidance for their moral and spiritual life not from the Christian tradition but the larger, secular, culture. This why the parish leaders (both lay and clergy) I spoke with couldn’t think of the unique reasons their community was valuable. Like the larger culture, they spontaneous thinking of religion only in general term. They resist any suggestion that one religion (even their own) might be better than another. Even when asked about their own community—a community in which they had personally invested significant time, treasure and talent—was valuable all they had ready to hand were the generic answers that have to dominate how most Christians in America think about the Gospel and their own community’s contribution to the larger culture.
To see how extensive is “The Triumph of the ‘Cult of Nice’” and come to dominate how Orthodox Christians think about themselves and the world around them, we only need to look at the data.
Looking at the data, America has been a social and economic blessing for Orthodox Christians. We are, on average, younger and better educated than most other religious traditions. We are also fairly well-off economically. Finally, Orthodox Christians tend to be racially and ethnically monolithic.
So, Orthodoxy in America is (largely) white, college educated and middle to upper middle-class.
But this doesn’t exhaust the data on the Church in America. Yes, by some metrics, Eastern Orthodox Christians have done well in America. But this isn’t the whole story. Other metrics suggest that not all is well.
While we have more clergy, more parishes/missions and more monasteries, as we’ll see in a moment we have fewer faithful; we have lost both those who were baptized as infants AND those who became Orthodox as adults.For example, in 2007 .6% of the adult population (1,363,271) were baptized in childhood as Orthodox Christians. Unfortunately, 368,083 (or 27% of those baptized in infancy) identified themselves as former Orthodox Christians.
What about converts in 2007?
Well, to the 995,188 adults who were baptized as infants who still identified themselves as practicing Orthodox Christians, were added, 297,264 adults. This means that as of 2007 there were 1,279,452 Orthodox Christians (cradle and convert) in America. But the Church in America still lost almost 1.2 adults for every 1 adult who entered the Church.
The PEW Charitable Trust re-visited the state of religion in America in 2014 and the change in the Church’s situation is dramatic. In 2014, there was a drop in both the percentage and the actual number of adult Orthodox Christians who were baptized in infancy. As of 2014, .5% of the adult population were baptized in childhood as Orthodox Christians (1,126,541). Of these, 576,474 (or 47% of those baptized in infancy) identified themselves as former Orthodox Christians. So the total number of practicing Orthodox Christian baptized as such as infants dropped to 650,067 for a loss of 222,709 or approximately 25% since 2007.
And converts in 2014?
In absolute numbers, the Church had fewer converts (222,709) in absolute numbers even while converts made up a larger percentage of the total number of practicing Orthodox Christians. In absolute numbers, we seem to have lost 74,555 converts between 2007 and 2014. We also lost slightly more than 2.5 adults baptized as infants for every 1 Orthodox Christian who joined as an adult.
Number of adults baptized as infants
Number of adults baptized as infants who have lapsed
Number of adult converts
TOTAL PRACTICING ORTHODOX
Keep in mind that what we are seeing likely reflects several factors.
Historically, the Church in America has done a poor job of gathering census data. We’ve never really had, at least until very recently, anything that approaches accurate data.
The dramatic increase in lapsed cradle Orthodox Christians likely reflects not a decrease in active Church members but rather a better count of those who have always been inactive.
The drop in the number of converts is frankly sobering. But it reflects the fact that converts will, when the first flush of faith fades, leave the Church even if they don’t (necessarily) leave in as great a percentage of those baptized as infants
The news is sobering in other areas as well.
In 2007, some 758,000 Orthodox Christians (55% of all Orthodox Christians baptized as infants) were born outside the US. But in 2014, 490,616 (40% of all Orthodox Christians in America) were born overseas. This “20% who were born in Europe, 7% who were born in sub-Saharan Africa and 7% who are from the Asia-Pacific region); 23% of Orthodox Christians are the children of immigrants” (Pew, 2015).
Other statistics from 2015, include
36% are third generation (both parents born here)
23% are second generation (at least one parent born overseas)
40% are first generation (born overseas)
Given that over 60% of all Orthodox Christians are either first or second generation, it is hard to see how the Orthodox Church can claim to be an American Church in anything other than the most general of terms. For the foreseeable future, Orthodoxy in America will be an immigrant Church.
 It is important to keep in mind that the PEW data tells us the number of Orthodox Christians who self-identify as converts in 2014 and NOT the number of adults who converted to Orthodoxy in that years.
 In 2007, PEW reported that 23% of the Church in America were converts. In 2014, that number had jumped to 27% even though the TOTAL number of converts had dropped by approximately 25% (from 297,264 in 07 to 222,709 in 14).
Fr. Robert Sirico, Acton Institute, on Pres. Trump’s Prayer Service
Fr. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute was on with Fox News’ Neil Cavuto for coverage of the Prayer Service the day after President Trump’s inauguration. I thought Fr Sirico offered a sound and sober reflection on the day’s event.
Here’s a very rough draft of the book I’m working on looking at Orthodox witness in America. While some of the references are included some are missing. It is a rough draft after all!
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
First Amendment, US Constitution
Americans’ religion identity have always been dynamic. From the beginning and still today, the pattern of American religious commitment has been in flux. While in the early years of the Republic some states had established churches, on the federal level (and eventually on the state level as well) America didn’t have established churches. In general, freedom of religion and the lack of an established church in America this had three effects:
Competition among religions
Growth in overall religious affiliation
Numerical winners and losers
Contrary to what this intense (and sometimes physically violent) religious competition might suggest, at its founding (and whatever might have been its cultural debt to Christianity), America was a profoundly unchurched nation. For example, “in the colonial period, no more than 10-20 percent of the population actually belonged to a church. … [F]actoring in children, … produces a national religious adherence rate of 17 percent for 1776 .”
And today? What’s the religious situation in America?
As of 2008, just over 78% of the adult population identified themselves as Christian; that’s almost a 300% increase since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But while the competitive religious marketplace has been very good for Christianity, in general, it has been very hard on particular Christian traditions. Approximately 53% of US Adults have left the faith of their childhood at some point. Of those who leave, only about 9% will eventually they return. If we take into account the margin of the Pew study, somewhere between 47% and 59% of U.S. adults have changed religious affiliation at least once.
The competitive American religious marketplace has helped create then a cultural situation religious identity is remarkably fluid. This, in turn, means that Americans simply aren’t institutionally loyal. I should point out, that this isn’t simply about religion or Christianity. It is rather a more general phenomenon that affects political parties, marriage and family life, business—pretty much every social institution apart from professional sports teams.
With this in mind, when we talk about “winners” and “losers” it’s important to keep in mind that to varying degrees everybody wins and everybody loses at least in terms of membership. Yes, you lose adults who were baptized as children but you gain others who join as adults. Yes, adult converts defect but lapsed members return.
From: Family Church Network
Whether we like it or not, and as a priest I must confess I both do and don’t like it, historically choosing one’s faith is the American norm. And today, much like America at its founding more and more Americans are unchurched. More Americans and especially those under 30, are choosing to be “unaffiliated,” to have no institutional religious identity. This is different from saying that the person is an agnostic or an atheist. Being a “none” also doesn’t mean the person isn’t Christian. What it does mean is that the person does see his or her spiritual life primarily in terms of attending a church. “Nones” often do attend church but for a variety of reasons don’t choose to identify with a local congregation or denomination.
While we might be tempted to bemoan the situation, at least in the context of American religious experience: “Secularization is a self-limiting process that leads not to irreligion, but to revival.” This isn’t necessarily revival in an Evangelical Christian sense of committing your life to Christ. It could be, and in highly unchurched parts of the US and Europe often is, a revival of pre-Christian religious practice or New Age spirituality.
What about Eastern Orthodox Christianity? How has the Orthodox Church fared in the American religious free market? As with other Christian and non-Christian traditions, the experience of Orthodoxy in America is a mixed bag.
What follows isn’t a “how-to” manual or a program for Orthodox evangelism or church building. There are enough of those available on the market already. My concern here is to trace out the areas for the fruitful, dare I say, profitable, engagement of the free market by Orthodox Christians.
As I argue below, while America has been a source of social and economic blessing for Orthodox Christians, it also has presented the Church with certain challenges. Chief among these is that the Church is in competition with other religions (Christian and non-Christian) as well as the broader, secular, culture for the allegiance of the human heart.
And because we are embodied beings, competition for the human heart also includes competition for the material and social resources needed for Orthodox Christians to live our lives in a pluralistic society. We need these resources as individual and families but also as parishes and dioceses. While we might prefer to focus on theology and liturgy—these are after all our strengths—Orthodox witness in the marketplace of ideas can’t be limited to what we do well. Our witness must also extend to the economic and political dimensions.
In what follows, I propose to look at five themes:
Christian and civil society as an ordered fullness.
The person as ontologically and morally prior to society.
The ascetical flourishing of the human person.
A brief introduction to human rights in Orthodox Social Teaching.
Christian philanthropy and human flourishing.
Each of these themes is worth a book length study, indeed several such studies. What I’m doing here is merely introducing reader to these themes. This is maybe a good moment to say who I imagine is reading this work.
Though I write as an Orthodox Christian priest, I’m not writing specifically to Eastern Orthodox Christians. Certainly, I hope my Orthodox brothers and sisters read what I’ve written but I’m not primarily writing for them. Rather, I hope that Christians outside the Orthodox tradition will pick up my work and use it to reflect on their own experience in bearing witness to the Gospel in a free market context. Sometimes we can see ourselves and our situation best when we look from someone else’s perspective.
This is true for Orthodox Christians as well. Inviting Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians to reflect on my tradition from their perspectives will, I hope, help me see things about my Church, our pastoral situation and my own praxis as a priest that I might not see otherwise. To put it directly, I think there is profit not only in the free exchange of goods and services for money but also in the free exchange of ideas. You see, this is my overwhelming experience as an Orthodox priest ministering in a highly competitive—sometimes brutally so—free market of ideas. The competition makes me a better priest, a better disciple of Jesus Christ and a better human being. This isn’t to say there aren’t cost associated with this. It is only to say what any free market economists will tell you. Without risk, there is no profit. These words hold as true in our spiritual life as they do in economic life.
So, what has been the effects of the free market for the Orthodox Church? Let’s look at that next.